Page last updated at 17:21 GMT, Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Sir Alan reveals his true colours

Sir Alan and the 15 candidates
Sir Alan Sugar poses with the latest candidates for The Apprentice

By Fiona Pryor
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

"Me? I'm dead easy to work for," says Sir Alan Sugar, trying his best to look innocent.

"You shouldn't believe everything you see on the television."

The businessman-turned-reality-TV-villain is turning on the charm at the press launch for the fifth series of The Apprentice.

And, he insists, this is the real Sir Alan. When I ask if he is as scary as the show makes out, he jokes: "Not really, but if you pester me, then you might take a different view."

These days, he is best known for harshly reprimanding his feckless job candidates - but Sir Alan is no stranger to long hours and elbow grease.

He started his entrepreneurial career selling car aerials out of a van he had bought with his savings.

From then, he went from strength to strength, eventually founding the electronics company Amstrad in 1968.

His estimated fortune is around 830m and he was ranked 92nd in last year's Sunday Times Rich List.

Because of his indelible mark on the business world, several journalists were keen to ask Sir Alan about the current recession.

"I'm sick and tired of being asked that question," he replies patiently.

"It's not really the topic to discuss here today. We're here to talk about the programme."

Sir Alan Sugar with Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford
Nick and Margaret are Sir Alan's eyes and ears in the show

Despite that, the 60-year-old admits the production team tried to reflect the economic downturn in the latest series.

"You'll see some shows are kind of specifically tuned towards it in recognition of these difficult times," he says.

In last year's series, the candidates were sent to Morocco for a bartering task, but Sir Alan says this year's crop were not quite so lucky.

"The Apprentices always think that they can second guess us," he laughs.

"They imagined they were going on some exotic, overseas trip.

"We did call them first thing in the morning, and they did bring their passports with them, but they ended up in Manchester and Liverpool!"

This year, there are only 15 participants, instead of the usual 16, as one man dropped out the night before the show started shooting.

In the first episode, Sir Alan tells the rest of the group that he "bottled it".

However, addressing the press he is far more sympathetic, and says there was "nothing sinister" about the situation.

"It was just that he got himself into his hotel room that night and realised 'this is it, I'm away from up to 12 weeks from my family and my kids'.

"I think the reality hit home."

You would have thought that with this being the fifth series, that they would come in well armed with knowing not what to do
Sir Alan Sugar

There is a broad selection of candidates this year, including a science teacher and a sandwich chain shop owner.

And, for the first time, two international applicants have been chosen.

33-year-old Kimberley Davis is a New Yorker who has played Mozart at the Carnegie Hall, while Mona Lewis, 28, is a former Tanzanian beauty queen.

But what all the contestants have in common is unshakeable confidence and eternal self-belief.

In the opening episode, Phillip Taylor, a 29-year-old estate agent says: "Business is the new rock n' roll... and I'm Elvis Presley."

Meanwhile, Ben Clarke, one of the youngest of the group at 22-years-old, proclaims that "making money is better than sex".

One thing that can be expected from this series - just like the previous four - is that the apprentices make lots of stupid decisions, which leaves them set for a vicious tongue-lashing from Sir Alan.

"You would have thought that with this being the fifth series, that they would come in well armed with knowing what not to do," Sir Alan says.

"But I can comfortably tell you that they still don't know what to do in some cases. It never fails to amaze me, but we wouldn't have a programme if they didn't make mistakes."

Last year's candidates Lee and Claire
Last year's winner Lee survived the boardroom against competitor Claire

Sir Alan reckons the reckless, and sometimes self-sabotaging, actions are because of "time constraints" and "an air of panic" amongst the group.

He adds: "You have got to be bloody dumb if you don't know what has gone on in the past."

When asked about whether candidates go on the show seeking fame, Sir Alan says the wannabes are "sifted out" by production staff in the beginning.

However, that has not stopped some former contestants, such as Ruth Badger and Saira Khan, from attempting a career in the media - with varying degrees of success.

"One thing I can say is that when they start off with the process, they have no intention of trying to embark upon a media career," he says.

"As soon as their face appears on the television, some of them quite like it, and they hire themselves agents, the same agent as Jonathan Ross or Cheryl Cole.

"They ask, 'can you find out who their agent is, please', as if they're something special," he laughs.

"They end up in small roles in some programmes, but there you go, we can't stop it. Our definite intention is not that.

"The intention is to win."

The fifth series of The Apprentice begins on BBC One on 25 March at 2100 GMT.

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